A subset of male Shiites injure themselves on Ashura to represent their grief over the martyrdom of Hussein, grandson of the prophet, at the hands of the Ummayad army in 680. These people engage in violent rituals such as pounding their chests with their fists, lacerating their scalps with a knife or machete, or self-flagellation with a zanjeer—five blades connected to a wooden handle by steel chain. But none of these forms of expression is sanctioned by mainstream religious authorities; most prominent Shiite clerics object to all forms of self-mutilation, since it has no basis in early religious history and appears barbaric to outsiders.
The parallels between self-inflicted ordeals in Islam and in Christianity are striking, as the practice persists in spite of what leaders say and the lack of any scriptural support. Prominent Muslim clerics have issues fatwas condemning the practices, that they reflect badly on the faith and harm the body.
According to Reza Aslan’s book No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (quoted in Newsweek):
“Despite appearances, the Sh’ite self-flagellation ceremonies have little in common with similar practices one finds in certain Christian monastic orders. This is not flagellation as a solitary act of pious self-mortification. Nor do these rituals correspond to the self-abnegation practices of some ascetic Hindu sects, for whom pain is a means of achieving a shift in consciousness.” Instead, Reza writes, it is “an act of communal witnessing…not pain, but the voluntary shedding of blood and tears for Husayn that brings salvation.”
While the practices at Ashura may not be much like monastic ordeals, they may more like the flagellant companies of late medieval Europe: public, communal ordeals to bring about transformation of the self and society.
The discussion makes me wonder about the relationship between self-inflicted violence and the outward-directed violence of bombings and shootings that also commonly occur around the day of Ashura. Does one prime the other, or does engaging in one preclude practicing the other?
This is particularly interesting as this kind of practice was prohibited for decades in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s secular regime, but is now having a resurgence in Iraq.